We need to think more about how food gets to us.
You know, those big semitrailer trucks that hang in the right lanes of our highways, with the word “logistics” painted on their sides. Pizza ingredients for Domino’s, potatoes from Idaho, and milk from Wisconsin travel through our international highway system night and day. Somewhere at the end of their treks, we consume their cargos and leave behind the remains.
But these days, the amount of food waste is unconscionable. Something needs to change in our food system that enables us to eat more of the food we produce.
Not that we should eat more, but we must distribute, prepare and consume our food more efficiently. We need to get healthier food to more people and encourage consumers to eat more of what goes through the food supply chain.
One idea is to eat more trimmings, cheeks, animal tails, vegetable roots and seafood that is cleverly called “by-catch.” Before your stomach protests, allow me to describe a salad I recently ate in New York City at a new salad bar. The salad was a fresh, savory meal made from the trimmings of carrots, bits and ends of celery and salad fixings, combined with seeds, nuts and croutons made from bread ends. It was delicious and topped with curls of fresh Parmesan cheese.
I clearly got the message about waste and education. More people should get it too.
In another direction, the nose-to-tail movement offers the opportunity to dine on cheeks, tails, hocks and offal. Some fishermen along the Gulf Coast are delivering by-catch, fish unintentionally caught along with targeted fish such as tuna. Eating one of these species, triggerfish, seems somehow so Texan.
Chefs across Texas experiment with dishes featuring these traditionally shunned marginalia of our food system. For instance, several Austin-area restaurants – Dai Due, Odd Duck, and Salt & Thyme – prepare dishes made from often-rejected animal parts such as turkey wings, pig cheeks and ears. Some such as Clark’s Oyster Bar feature fish such as drum and red fish, all common to Central Texas but not on your usual seafood menu.
Cooked properly by an imaginative chef, these nontraditional ingredients can be just as delectable as filet of sea bass or dry-aged steak. They also need sumptuous and inviting language to entice a skeptical diner. For example, the menu at a recent U.N. dinner offered a “Landfill Salad” of vegetable scraps from the “waste streams of large-scale processors.”
Their menu creators certainly could have paid more attention to the language used to describe the ingredients, especially considering how today’s restaurant menu designers anguish over how to best describe dishes. Although the United Nations clearly indicated their stance on food processors to their guests, they revealed their tin ear when it comes to understanding consumer perceptions of food.
We should also learn more about how long we can keep food before tossing it. Labels and expiration dates often confuse consumers about the safe shelf lives of products. “Best before” and “best by” labels, although well intentioned, often lead to the disposal of food that is still good and safe to eat.
The announcement this year of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new app, Foodkeeper, is one way you can learn more about how long individual ingredients last. Consumers can look up food items, such as eggs, to find out how long they can be stored before they are unsafe to eat.
Unfortunately, there’s no single solution to the elimination of food waste. If we resist the temptation to toss unappealing vegetable scraps and unwanted animal parts, or learn more about shelf life in our own homes, we can take a small bite out of the egregious amount of food wasted — as much as 40 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And, we can move more of the food we already produce through the supply chain to our plates.
Simply put, we need to change the way our food system works to help enable us to be better stewards of the food we have.
Robyn Metcalfe is a lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and editor and publisher of Food+City, a media platform that offers perspectives on the realities of how we feed cities, and inspires action.
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